Directed by Joe Wright
Written by Tom Stoppard
United Kingdom and France, 2012
Joe Wright is, at heart, a flamboyant showman, cut from the same cloth as P.T. Barnum, someone whose florid sensibility is present even in the most down-to-earth literary adaptations, like Pride and Prejudice or Atonement. As such, the deliberately theatrical display in his new version of Leo Tolstoy’s famous romance Anna Karenina is a natural extension of Wright’s overtly stylistic nature. The risky conceit of this Anna Karenina—that the majority of the film’s action and sets are staged inside of a facsimile of an old Russian theater—pays off for the most part, even though the parts wind up being more satisfying than the whole.
Keira Knightley stars as the title character, a Russian socialite married to a decent if unromantic and cold politician (Jude Law). On a trip to help smooth over her wayward brother’s unfaithful ways, she meets a young Count (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to whom she’s immediately attracted, and vice versa. Soon, they give into passion and begin a torrid affair that could consume both of their lives, simply by throwing traditional customs of the day and the social schema in disarray. One wonders, however, how passionate Wright is about the story itself and its many tormented characters, versus the method of storytelling. Though Tom Stoppard’s script is fairly faithful, the presentation is decidedly unique and arresting.
By setting almost all of the film inside of a theater—and employing the whole building, from the floorboards to the rafters—Wright at least makes this Anna Karenina something you won’t soon forget. The showy, intentionally stagey setup is never far from the audience’s mind. A ride on a train becomes both more elaborate and more fantastical when we watch said vehicle as represented by a toy-store model. A horse race, one of the story’s major setpieces, feels more claustrophobic and ethereal, as we watch the riders and their steeds emerge from the inky blackness offstage, setting off to certain tragedy. Wright’s knack for creating striking visuals is unflagging here, aided by Seamus McGarvey’s exemplary cinematography.
That the actors in Anna Karenina, who could very easily feel like pawns in an extremely detailed chess match Wright is playing with himself, don’t get lost in the artifice is impressive. Knightley, who has sometimes brought a bit of a distracting affect to her other work, is used quite well here, able to convey lust and jealousy and neediness solidly, sometimes in the same sequence. Taylor-Johnson is a far cry from playing Kick-Ass, as Count Vronsky, the headstrong and foolhardy young man who gets in too deep and doesn’t know how to extricate himself from this turmoil. It’s Law and Matthew Macfadyen, as Anna’s uncouth brother, who shine most of all, as polar opposites. Alexei, Anna’s silent and stern husband, is almost comically righteous, a pious man who’s respected throughout the land and Law is excellent in bringing such a figure to life. Macfadyen, who has a lot more to do in the first half, is an unexpected jolt of comic relief, an outrageous, id-fueled character who’s able to coast on his charm while he flouts accepted social mores.
Though Stoppard’s script often is incisive in its representation of Anna’s troubles with her female peers, and how the gender imbalance in Russia (as well as the modern world) was heavily weighted against women, it stumbles a bit with the major subplot in Anna Karenina, that of an honorable young man named Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) in love with Anna’s sister-in-law’s sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Levin’s story is meant as a contrast, showing us the key difference between lust and love. As much as the content within this subplot is executed well—it’s the only time Wright ever lets us leave the theater, opening up the countryside with expansive if spare vistas—it never truly feels connected to the main story of Anna and Vronsky. Gleeson and Vikander are moving and have decent chemistry, but it’s as if they’re in another movie. Finally, as much as this movie begins bombastically and is frequently sumptuous and indulgent, the ending is surprisingly abrupt and low-key. It doesn’t feel right for Anna Karenina, the Joe Wright version, to float away with its last scene, like a wisp on the wind.
Still, Anna Karenina is frequently stunning and, at times, dizzying in its technical prowess. If there’s a downside to Joe Wright’s choice to set the film in a theater, to purposely add a challenge and inject new life into the stagnating genre of the period costume drama, it’s that said choice almost swallows the film whole. There’s only so much connection we can have to these characters when they are so clearly fake, when they feel less than human. The movie looks beautiful, it boasts solid-to-superb performances, and its technical virtues are clear. But Anna Karenina’s soaring ambitions, while they should be applauded, end up holding it back just a bit.
— Josh Spiegel